The Girl Who Smiled Beads by Clemantine Wamariya charts her and her sister, Claire’s, experience as refugees during the Rwandan genocide. Born into a relatively comfortable family, the girls’ lives are disrupted as the country descends into civil war and then ethnic genocide. Sent away from their family home in an attempt to keep them safe, the girls find themselves constantly on the move between countries and refugee camps in search of safety and some sense of normalcy. Despite being quite young, with Claire’s guidance the girls survive the conflict but endure a lot of trauma along the way.
When the book opens Clemantine and her older sister Claire are both living in Chicago but separately. Clemantine has been taken in by a comfortably middle-class family while her sister is living with her children in an apartment. From the outset, we see that somewhere along their journey, Clemantine’s and Claire’s lives have diverged. They’re from the same family and place and have shared similar experiences but their difference in ages has resulted in dramatically different opportunities.
The book begins with Clemantine and Claire leaving Claire’s apartment for a limo ride to a fancy downtown hotel. Clemantine was one of the winners of an essay contest that had been organized by The Oprah Show. Participants had to write an essay about their perspective on a man who had survived the Holocaust. Inspired by their trying journey, Oprah offers the girls the opportunity to reconnect with their past. This is a catalyst for Clemantine to reflect on her childhood and experience during the genocide.
We get some insight into their regular lives before the conflict began and it becomes clear that they’re from a middle-class background. In addition to the two girls, the family consisted of their parents as well as a brother, Pudi, who was between them in age, and a sister who was younger than Clemantine. The family had not necessarily servants but more like nannies or babysitters. Young women from the country who came into the city to live and work for a bit before getting married. They’re all fairly nice but Clemantine comes to love one, in particular, Dani, who overcomes Clemantine’s stubbornness by bribing her with stories.
Clemantine is an inquisitive child and by the time she goes off to school has questions about everything that’s going on around her. In her quest to understand she asks her mother and father endless questions. They generally respond with very simplified answers, telling her as much as they want to tell her. Dani uses stories to answer Clemantine’s questions and explain things in a way she can understand. These early experiences sparked a passion within her for storytelling.
And it was around this time that the country and community began to change. There were secret meetings and a rising tension which her parents tried to hide from her and the other kids. At first, this worked to a degree but then Clemantine began to notice the changes and her older brother offered some well-intentioned though misguided insights. It became more difficult to shield the kids from what was happening when people began disappearing or passing away.
Clemantine paid special attention to deaths as she had developed a kind of curiosity about the topic. Previously, her parents would at least explain things on a basic level. But there was now a feeling that they were obscuring the details when they discussed someone who had passed away. With her parents trying to hide things, Clemantine became even more curious about what was going on.
Eventually, things got to a point where the looming threat could no longer be obscured as noise and explosions could be heard off in the distance but getting closer. With their parents avoiding discussing things, Clemantine’s brother sweetly made up stories to explain the changes that were taking place. I care about people in general but like most, I have an especially soft spot for kids. I was worried about the people but particularly concerned about how the kids would be affected by the coming conflict.
People’s daily routines changed, everyone was sticking close to home as much as possible, and then the schools closed. I could only imagine the absolute terror and helplessness the adults must have felt at what was coming but having no real means for protecting themselves or their children. It became unsafe to leave the house, even for work, and things such as food were becoming increasingly expensive. Neighbors, people you’ve likely known for years and maybe even considered friends, are dealing with harassment and terrors of their own while others suddenly seem sketchy.
What does that do to a person? Sure people were on lockdown for a period during the pandemic and it was scary for people who had to go out to work. But you were relatively safe within your home. COVID wasn’t going to show up at your house and drag you out into the street to kill you. What do you do in a situation where you need safety but there are no true safe-havens? And the fear for survival is intense because you face danger both inside and outside your home?
In the last days of some degree of normalcy, Clemantine and the other kids in the neighborhood saw the movie “Rambo”. They ran around pretending to be Rambo imitating what they’d seen in the movie with some going so far as to tear up their clothes to recreate the costume. But then suddenly, Clemantine started to notice that there were now some grown people dressed in the same manner. Being about six years old at this point, she had a limited understanding of death and war as she’d never seen a soldier, gun, or gunfire in real life. As these things entered her life and became real, she lost her innocence but still didn’t fully understand the situation because of her age.
Because Clemantine and Claire were girls and might be especially targeted, their parents decided to send them to their grandmother who lived in a different part of the country. It’s worth noting that these are girls, one is six and the other 15 but yet their lives especially are considered to be in danger. They as well as other female cousins were put in a van and sent away to their grandmother. Other girls in the neighborhood were sent to relatives as well.
Usually, Clemantine loved visiting her grandmother but felt homesick because not only did she not understand what was going on but she was now also separated from her parents. Their grandmother took protecting her granddaughters very seriously. But I never really got the gist as to why the girls, in particular, were especially considered in danger. Usually, people protect women and children when there’s danger but in this case, Clemantine’s mother, older brother, and younger sister remained behind.
Now staying with their grandmother, the girls settled into a new routine though Clemantine was at first resistant. This becomes a constant in the book where Clemantine and Claire have to move around to different environments and adapt to the situation. And then as soon as they get settled in and develop a routine, suddenly they would have to move again or things would just change. Most people, especially children, tend to have a day-to-day routine but because their world is uncertain, they’re unable to maintain a routine for any fixed length of time.
The fighting makes its way to the part of the country where their grandmother lives, actually to her very front door. Once again, they have to move as the unspoken and ominous danger has now arrived. Fleeing in the night, they are separated from their grandmother and cousins and once out of immediate danger spend quite a bit of time traveling on foot. During all this chaos they’re unable to fully trust anyone despite needing help with finding food and shelter. This would be hard enough as an adult never mind for a 15-year-old girl trying to navigate this environment with a six-year-old in tow?
It’s at this point that they begin to see the true carnage which had thus far been kept at a distance. They spend days walking among other people who are just as scared and stressed. Being unable to get a good night’s sleep doesn’t help. There are no breaks which makes the situation even more stressful. Days turn into weeks and they are finally able to reach their first refugee camp. It’s worth noting that the camp is located in Burundi so they’ve had to travel to a whole other country in search of safety and this pattern would continue. The camp provides a break from the fighting. But while it’s shelter, it isn’t home. There’s food for sustenance but it’s not anything you would choose to eat. It’s an environment built for survival, not for true living, and certainly not thriving.
This was eye-opening for me as I’d heard about refugee camps but I don’t think I’ve ever met a refugee or had given much thought to what the camps are like. I assumed it would be similar to an army barrack, not a palace but at least basic living quarters and decent food. Seeing this conflict through the eyes of a child took the situation from being nondescript and miles away and brought it down to one person’s story which humanized it.
The progression of the Rwandan genocide was told through this person’s journey rather than your traditional history book with facts, figures, and dates. The book needed to begin with their lives before the genocide because it helped show just how much they lost. Having some measure of life before as well as their young ages drives home the point of what they’ve endured.
It’s easy at times to forget how young Claire is as she tries desperately to keep her and Clemantine together and safe. Clemantine is in her childhood and wants to be cared for. She wants the safety and comfort that she experienced in her parents’ home where they took care of her and hired nannies to do the same.
Claire is doing her best to look over Clemantine but there’s nobody there to look over Claire who still needs guidance. She’s still a child herself and not fully equipped to raise a child much less under these circumstances. Yet, Claire shows herself as being very capable of adapting and hustling. She uses the surplus of things they have to barter for more of the things that they need. It doesn’t exactly make life comfortable for them in the refugee camp but makes it more tolerable.
At points, the book jumps back and forth between what is the present in Chicago and the past as a refugee in various African countries. Looking back, Clemantine explains how the pair arrived in Chicago and the early years of them living in the city. They received assistance which helped them move to America and then people looked out for them when they arrived which allowed them to get settled.
Originally, Clemantine was living with Claire but she was offered the opportunity to live out in the suburbs with a middle-class family that would make it easier for her to attend good schools and put her on the path to college. This was great for Clemantine but caused her to be separated from Claire which led them down different paths in life.
The book is in part about the genocide and as expected there’s a lot of negativity around that but they also see some good along the way. They’re not in a position to do much of anything for others or to improve anyone else’s life. But there are people along the way in both Africa and Chicago who are genuinely nice and look out for them.
By the time they settle in America, Clemantine has been through so much. Her focus from a very young age has just been on survival. Not thriving. Not developing as a complete human being. Not figuring out who she is as a person. Not having space and the freedom to be a kid. Instead, she’s thrust into full-on life from a very early age.
There’s a point where she speaks about her adoptive mother’s friend, who picks her up from school one day to take her shopping. She sees that, while this young girl probably doesn’t realize it, she needs help bridging the gap from childhood to young adulthood. She needs help becoming comfortable with and understanding her body. Not just the biological aspect of it but feeling comfortable in her skin and developing some kind of an appreciation for her body. Treating her body as more than just a vessel or flesh moving through the world. It begins at a physical level but with hopes that it will deepen over time.
Clemantine certainly needed this but I couldn’t understand why the same wasn’t offered to Claire as well. By the time they made it to America Claire was college-aged but there were fewer resources made available to her. Claire’s teenage years were filled with responsibilities and experiences that would have been unmanageable for many adults. But it’s unclear why she was kind of left to figure things out for herself. Maybe it was because she had children and was considered “grown” by this point?
Claire is stuck in the position of just trying to survive. Meanwhile, Clemantine can shift back into working towards thriving as a person and going through as normal a maturation as possible. She has certainly been affected by what she sees and experiences during the conflict. But in being a young child, people take pity on her and recognize that she needs mothering. People volunteer to take care of and look over her.
Because Claire is in this sort of limbo phase, she doesn’t receive the same treatment. She goes from being a child to an adult with no transition or adjustment phase. This plays a huge role in the way her life unfolds, and the kind of life that she has within the refugee camps.
Back in one of the camps, an aide worker, Rob, took an interest in Claire but not the type of attention she needed. Rob wasn’t old but was too old for Claire as he was around 25-years-old while Claire was still in her mid-teens. A grown man lusting after a teenager is problematic but him hounding her while she was in distress made the situation even ickier. He kept pushing for them to get married and dangled the opportunity for her and Clemantine to go to school and have some sense of security. With few other options, it felt like she didn’t have a choice.
Clemantine mentions that there’s a cultural practice of women being highly valued. Not necessarily as people but because at the time of their marriage, they can become a source of wealth for their family. When a man marries a woman, he is expected to pay her family a bridal price which might include cows, land, etc. Clemantine explains that this is why a woman’s virginity is highly prized. It’s something to hold sacred because of the wealth it can bring to the family. But this also means that a woman’s worth and value can be wiped away by the loss of her virginity if consensual but even if it’s through no choice of her own. It’s a bit of a sidetrack but I thought the concept or more accurately, Clemantine’s explanation was rather interesting.
Rob continuously sought out Claire and badgered her about them getting married. Eventually, he wore her down and arrangements were made for the wedding and for them to live with his family. It was a welcome surprise that his family turned out to be relatively nice people who welcomed them with open arms. Because Clemantine was still so young, she was allowed to be a little girl and run around and play without any worries. But because Claire was now this man’s wife, she was no longer considered a child and likely hadn’t been seen as such since she left her parents’ home. A pregnancy soon followed and with it, all of the hopes and aspirations that she had for herself began to fade away.
Going to school was a huge part of why she married Rob and with a child on the way it seemed to no longer be a feasible option. And even after she had the child there was the question of who will watch the baby while you’re in school or doing homework. She married this guy for stability and protection with the promise that she could go to school. And now there were all of these reasons as to why she couldn’t. It came across as a ploy to keep her under his control. Claire and Clemantine came to love the babies though this wasn’t the life they wanted.
I truly admired Claire and she was probably my favorite person in the book but I also liked the insight and perspective that Clemantine offered. Her viewpoint is interesting because of all that she’d endured. She explains not quite coming to terms with what she experienced during the Rwandan genocide but her struggles with finding the language to express her experience. Reading about the experiences of other people who lived through similar conflicts made her feel like there was finally someone else who understood what she’d endured.
A lot of the people that she came into contact with in Chicago couldn’t understand her experience because they hadn’t experienced anything similar in their own lives. They meant no harm but sometimes the questions that they asked were off-putting or would feel as though they were prying. So in reading about the experiences of other people who had similar experiences, it made her feel like both a part of a group and an individual. It was like the idea of being a part of a club, of which no one wants to be a member. You go through an incredibly traumatic experience that few other people experience. On the outside looking in, they might recognize the trauma and significance of that event. But without having experienced it themselves, they don’t truly understand the feelings.
The people who work within the refugee camps interact with the refugees with a sort of egotistical self-importance. They view the people within the refugee camps, not in the sense of here’s this thing that’s happened to you through no fault of your own. But rather from the perspective that there’s some defect within you as an individual which has resulted in you now being in this position. They relate not from a sense of we’re both human beings so I should help you out but rather from a place of false superiority. In keeping with that, any attempts for the refugees to deal with the workers within the camps as equals are met with hostility.
I loved Claire’s hustler spirit and respected that where it seems like things were hopeless and others would give up, she would try and figure out some kind of way to endure and improve the situation. But Claire also refused to allow anyone to make her feel less than. She dictated who she is, how she felt about herself, and what kind of person she was going to be.
As a history buff, I liked that the book offered insight into the overall conflict through these girls’ experiences. But also that it took a moment to share a brief history of Rwanda. As occurred in other areas of Africa that were carved up and colonized, the incoming Europeans established a eugenics framework based on random traits that were then used to categorize people. The environment that was created by the Belgians played a part in laying the groundwork for an ethnic conflict. Before these so-called racial and ethnic categories, the people had lived fairly peacefully with each other.
Sowing division by dividing people into groups and then giving some a degree of privilege while subjugating others. It’s one instance in a long history of dividing and conquering. And even with Belgium giving the country its independence in the 60s, the fuse had already been lit. With the different ethnic groups or quasi ethnic groups now fighting amongst themselves, it diverted attention from the real problem which was this colonizing European power taking advantage of the country.
Sometimes in books about a person’s experience during a historical event, it zooms so far in on the individual that the event itself becomes more of a footnote. Clemantine notes that people’s curiosity tends to make them zoom in on her as an individual as though she and her experience are special. She makes it a point to stress that her experience is certainly unique to her. But it’s an experience shared by hundreds of thousands of people in Rwanda. This tragedy that occurred and these experiences she endured were also lived through by hundreds of thousands if not millions of people.
She contrasts when people speak about the Rwandan conflict as being an estimated 850,000 people dying as though that’s it. All of that humanity, all of those individuals are just lumped together into a number. They aren’t referred to as individual people that died but rather as a group or a cluster of humanity. Referring to those lives out of context by reducing them to a number takes away the true meaningfulness of the significance of all of that loss of life. These were individuals, each one of them with their own story and experiences leading up to this event.
Referring to them as 850,000 dead rather than as 850,000 human beings might sound the same but there’s a difference. When mass graves are discussed, it sounds like it’s just a number. When NGOs or other international bodies discuss the conflict, it’s just a number. But then she contrasts that against when 9/11 happened by which time she was living in Chicago.
With 9/11 there was a full stop. People took a pause and recognized the loss of the individual people that died. The news coverage was different. The unfortunate people who perished in the terror attack weren’t referred to as the several thousand people who died in this tragedy. When possible, time was taken to name the dead as individuals and provide some info about their lives before the tragedy. It’s also something she pointed out about the Vietnam War Memorial where the time was taken to list out the names of all of the American soldiers who died as best as possible. But there’s no memorial in America for the Vietnamese people that lost their lives.
When conflicts occur here on American soil, especially if it personally affects you, people feel it more and pay greater attention. But when something happens on the other side of the world, you might listen in passing but it doesn’t pack the same emotional punch. You don’t see a one-to-one connection with something over there. It’s regarded as sad for “those” people without recognizing that they are just people in general. And if I’m being honest, I’m guilty of this as well.
Another thing that I thought was pretty insightful is that she mentions her and Claire’s discomfort with being treated and regarded as charity cases. Despite everything, they still try to maintain some sense of pride even with things not going their way or being as they might like. They preserve some degree of pride in the way in which they carry themselves and don’t want anyone’s pity. What they want is to be treated as human beings.
When Clemantine arrives in America, the people that she comes into contact with try to give her opportunities which helps to make her life comparably easier. She’s able to go to school, ends up living with a nice family, and overall doesn’t have to worry about survival anymore. Her life is no longer what it was when they were moving between refugee camps. She’s able to at least on the surface be a regular teenager.
But something to note is that shortly after moving to America, she ends up settling into a predominantly White environment. The family that she lives with is White as is the school she attends and most of the people she comes into contact with on a day-to-day basis. Coming from Africa to North America and settling in Chicago, she notes that her ancestors didn’t have the same history with White people as the ancestors of Black people in America. And so with that, there’s less of an underlying discomfort with White people. She has a hard time connecting with people overall but doesn’t find it any more difficult to connect with White people. If anything, she seems more uncomfortable or at least has greater difficulty connecting with Black people.
Indeed, her ancestors didn’t have a troubled history with White Americans. Yet given Rwanda’s history of colonization by a European country, they certainly have a troubled history with White Europeans. Some of her comments about Black Americans were stereotypical and likely based on things she heard from the people around her. Characteristics ascribed to the Black Americans she interacted with were likely less a factor of their ethnic group and more a matter of them having low incomes and thus fewer resources. She likely would have seen much of the same in a low-income White neighborhood. But her perception is skewed as she first came into contact with a Black low-income community and then a wealthy White neighborhood.
Claire on the other hand settles into public housing right on the outskirts of Chicago. By this point, Claire is 22-years-old with three children and a husband who mistreats, undervalues, and tries to break her down. She has to work to provide for herself and her children so she has far more responsibilities. Claire receives some basic assistance to get started but is expected to take care of and provide for herself from there. From the outset, you can’t help but notice that Claire is incredibly smart and very resourceful. She has been dealt a rough hand by life but with the right opportunity should be able to go very far.
It reminded me of Langston Hughes’s poem “A Dream Deferred”. Here’s this person with all of this potential within themselves as well as drive and determination. All the things that you’re told are necessary to be successful. Yet, she has all of that but not the opportunities to make full use of it. Circumstances absolutely beyond her control, drag her down early in life and pin her in place. This all but guarantees that her current place in life is most likely going to be the place where she stays.
And because she and her kids came to America and settled into a Black neighborhood, they have a different experience from Clemantine. They’re still very connected to Rwandan culture but they can also see some commonality and connect with Black Americans.
There’s a discussion at one point in the book about organizations going into Africa and other formerly colonized places with the intention that they’ll now fix all of the problems. They believe they will come in with aid and relief and show the people how to turn things around. It displays a certain arrogance as well as a lack of understanding of history. Especially because these are organizations from the same countries that colonized or played a role in the colonization of these places in the past.
You have to think of it in the sense that you can’t seek salvation from your oppressor. Yet it might make sense for them to take some responsibility as they are the ones that caused the problems. The fact is that they destroyed these countries, tried to strip the continent bare of its resources, and did much the same elsewhere in the world. And now, years later, they venture back to these places intending to show the people how to live and how to do better and improve their lives. It’s kind of like a new take on the concept of “the white man’s burden” and with that, we have to worry about ulterior motives.
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